Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen says the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue, his all-star teaming with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, “had a little trouble finding a name” for their current concert tour when the three first decided to hit the road together.
They had done it before, as the New York Rock & Soul Revue in 1992. But this time, Fagen says, “we wanted to call it something different,” and there was a lengthy discourse before the trio finally settled on the Dukes moniker.
“I think we started out with The ‘Theme From Sea Hunt’ Rhythm Revue, but that didn’t get universal acclaim,” Fagen, 62, deadpans. “We went through a few names, but I think The Dukes sounds like something from the ’50s, when we were kids. And September sort of refers to advancing years and is kind of an allusion to our collective ages — plus, we’re going out in September.
“It’s a little ... complicated. But that’s basically the way it worked out.”
Fans of the three veteran performers, meanwhile, probably don’t care as much about the name as the simple fact that they’re out together again. The New York Rock & Soul Revue, besides being a hoot in which they played their own songs and select rock and R&B covers, was also the launch pad for the revival of Steely Dan after guitarist Walter Becker joined that tour. Becker is nowhere to be found this time. “He’s busy with is own project, a solo project, right now,” Fagen says. But The Dukes are confident that plenty of musical magic will indeed happen in September.
“For us it’s like a great escape,” explains McDonald, 58, who logged time in Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers during the ’70s and early ’80s before launching a solo career in 1982 that’s included a pair of Motown cover albums. “It’s kind of a luxurious opportunity to do what we would have the most fun doing.
“We all have fun going out as Steely Dan or Boz or Michael McDonald ... but it largely consists of our own records being reproduced live. This is more fun for us, in a way, and hopefully not too self-indulgent. I think the audience enjoys it, too.”
Fagen adds that “for me it’s a total no-stress thing because the focus isn’t so much on me. I just get to play without it being so much of a job in a certain way. It’s a lot of fun.” And Scaggs, 66, a founding member of the Steve Miller Band before going solo in 1968, is equally enthusiastic about the collaboration.
“It’s a real thrill to be able to work with a couple of artists who have mutual respect for each other and come out of the same musical place,” he explains. “This is a chance that we don’t get very often. This is a real opportunity for us and our audiences to see something special, and that’s the way I think that we all carry into this.”
And, being the pragmatist, Scaggs adds that touring as The Dukes is also “good for business.”
“I’m getting to see an audience that I wouldn’t necessarily get to see on my own, and maybe some of the same things are happening with” Fagen and McDonald, he says.
The lure of the show for all concerned, performers and fans, is the repertoire. The three are playing their own hits, backing each other on Scaggs’ “Lowdown,” McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near),” Doobie Brothers favorites such as “Takin’ It to the Streets,” Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years” and Fagen’s own “I.G.Y.” But the trio is even more stoked about tapping into their own influences and roots, and the covers list so far on the tour has included Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” Teddy Pendergrass’ “Love T.K.O.,” the O’Jays’ “Love Train,” the Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda,” three tunes by The Band — “Caledonia Mission,” “Rag Mama Rag,” and “The Shape I’m In” — and a surprising Fagen-sung version of the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street.”
“I still love playing the music from the late ’50s through the ’60s, soul music and R&B, and this is really a chance for me to play it,” notes Fagen, who’s been an occasional member of The Band drummer Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble Band both in Woodstock and on the road. “It’s just so much fun to play that music.”
Fagen adds that he selected “Shakedown Street” because “it isn’t the typical Grateful Dead song. It had a kind of dance beat to it. I think they were kind of cashing in on the disco craze or something like that. But it’s a fantastic song with a beautiful lyric and it gets a great response every time that we do it.”
Scaggs, meanwhile, is happy The Dukes have taken their repertoire far afield this year. “We’re working with material that is challenging,” he explains, “and it’s really fun to perform background vocals or to take a guitar part of it, take a synth part. And I’m talking about the material of the other two guys as well as the cover material we’re going to do. This is fun, challenging and the stuff the music’s all about.”
And for his part, McDonald feels the three stars’ own music shines even brighter, keeping company with the covers.
“We want to put our best foot forward with our own songs because we’re doing so many great old songs that all of a sudden, the bar gets raised,” he says. “You don’t want to get up there and do something too obscure that is a dimmer moment in the evening.”
But one thing the Dukes are not about, they say, is one-upsmanship.
“I think you’re always in competition with yourself,” Fagen says, “but we’re all into playing with other musicians. We like to make each other look good, I think, and so it’s more about collaboration really. And it’s (a) very, very comfortable thing, really.”
The Dukes did not initially plan to record or film this year’s tour, although Fagen says that could change before the trek winds up Sept. 29 in Los Angeles. After that, the three will go their own ways and back into their own endeavors; Fagen and Scaggs are both making solo albums — the latter a set of Great American Songbook standards — while Steely Dan is touring Australia in November, and McDonald is mulling over a couple of potential album projects.
None of the three will hazard a guess about another Dukes or other kind of collaborative tour — it has, after all, been 18 years since the New York Rock & Soul Revue — but warm memories are already in place from this particular team-up.
“It’s really a great thing,” McDonald notes. “You’ve got a great band up there and all the musicians are pretty world-class players. You get to hear these songs reinvented, so to speak, in live performance by artists who really love and appreciate them. It’s a special circumstance, really — a dream come true.”
The Dukes of September Rhythm Revue, featuring Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, performs at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 8, at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $39.50-103. Visit www.olympiaentertainment.com or call 313-471-6611.
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